I was disappointed I didn’t get to see the Tishman/Disney collection of African art when I went to Washington last week, so after looking at the Richard Serra and Anthony Caro shows at the Met a few days ago, I decided to spend time studying the Met's African art. It's quite simply some of the best art in the city -- some of the best art anywhere.
Traditional African artists were respected professionals who underwent rigorous training in the styles and conventions of their culture, but artists were expected to make interesting variations on traditional themes. Standards were very high, and their degree of skill was acknowledged and the subject of considerable discussion.
This is pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if one of the reasons African artists were so respected, and their art is so powerful, is because it evolved when there was no written language. It was left to artists, as a result, to physically manifest a culture's wisdom, history, law, morality, etc. The incentive, the necessity, to produce richly meaningful art must have been enormous.
African art, of course, has a staggeringly expressive range, as you'd expect of the art of a country that's more than three times the size of the continental United States. But I want to focus here on art that is elegant and graceful -- at least what is thought of as elegant and graceful in western terms. It is an art based on nature without copying nature. This is a subtle and sophisticated art that's abstracted down to the essentials. Here are some of my favorites. (I included the acquisition number in the captions so you can easily look them up on the Met's Collection Database.)
The first two works are relatively old and are breathtaking examples from the Edo Empire (1440-1897), the pre-colonial African state of Benin, located in what is now Nigeria. (Coincidentally, the Edo period in Japan was about the same time, 1603 - 1868, but there is no connection.)
|Head of Oba, 16th C, Edo peoples, Nigeria, Court of Benin, brass (Met #1979.206)|
|Detail: Head of Oba. Click to enlarge.|
|Queen Mother Pendant Mask - lyoba, 16th C, Edo peoples, ivory, iron, copper, 9x5x3 in (Met #1978.412.323)|
|Buffalo Head, 19-20th C, Ewe peoples, Togo, terracotta, 9x9x5 (Met #1979.206.1)|
|Figure - Boine (Boli), 19th-20th C, Bamana peoples, Mali, wood, sacrificial materials (patina), 14x8x21 (Met #1979.206.175)|
|Headdress (Sogoni Koun), 19th–20th century, Bamana peoples, Mali, Wood, cane, string, bamboo, 23x8x10 in, (Met #1979.206.158)|
|Door (Anuan), 19th-mid 20th C, Baule peoples, Cote d'Ivoire, wood, pigment, 62x23x3 in (Met #1979.206.120)|
|Detail: Door (Anuan). Click to enlarge.|
|Figure, 19th -20th C, Mumuye peoples, Nigeria, wood 36x7x6 in (Met #1983.189)|
|Headress - Serpent (A-Mantsho-na-Tshol), 19th-20th C, Baga peoples, Guinea, wood, pigment, 55 in (Met #1978.412.339|
|Installation view, Masquerades Masks, 19th-20th C, Baga and Nalu peoples, Guinea|
|Seated figure, 13th C, Djenne peoples, Mali, terracotta, 10x12 in (Met #1981.218)|
Charles Kessler is an artist and writer, and lives in Jersey City.